The Hebraic Origins of Matthew’s Gospel

A number of the New Testament Greek texts we have today may not be the original language the books were conceived in, let alone written in. This is most obviously true in the case of Matthew, for which we have explicit evidence for its being originally written in Hebrew. The earliest church fathers are generally known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers, who form a contiguous chain from the Apostles to the 1st Ecumenical Council ( A.D., 325), also known as the Council of Nicea. They provide a consistent testimony to the Hebraic origins of Matthew’s Gospel.

The earliest witness to the Hebraic origin of Matthew is Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, in Asia Minor. The church historian Eusibius references his (now lost) Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord (c. 100), where he speaks concerning the Hebrew origin of the Gospels. Eusebius quotes Papias as follows:

Matthew put down the words of the Lord in the Hebrew language, and others have translated them, each as best he could. (Schaff 1890, 317)

Irenaeus (120-202 A.D.) was Bishop of Lyons in France. Most of his literary endeavors were undertaken in the last quarter of the second century A.D. Irenaeus states:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their owndialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. (Schaff, ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus 1884, 685)

Origen (first quarter of the third century), in his commentary on Matthew, states:

Among the four Gospels,which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of Godunder heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once apublican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts fromJudaism, and published in the Hebrew language. (Schaff, NPNF2-01. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine 1890, 571)

Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (circa 325 A.D.), writes:

For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence. (Schaff, NPNF2-01. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine 1890, 265)

There are additional references in the later church fathers (generally known as the Post-Nicean Fathers, dating from approximately 325 A.D.). Epiphanius, for instance, writes at length about the Jewish-Christian sect of the Nazarenes:

They have the entire Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew. It is carefully preserved by them as it was originally written, in Hebrew script. (Bivin and Blizzard Jr. 1994, Kindle Locations 214-215)

Epiphanius also writes about the Ebionites, another Messianic sect:

And they too accept the Gospel of Matthew. . .They call it “according to the Hebrews,” and that is the correct way of speaking since Matthew alone of the New Testament writers presents the gospel in Hebrew and in the Hebrew script. (Bivin and Blizzard Jr. 1994, Kindle Locations 215-217)

Eusebius writes of Saint Pantaenus the Philosopher, a second century convert from the Stoics, who for a time was a missionary to India, and who discovered a Hebrew edition of Matthew that had reportedly been left there by Bartholemew.[1]

Pantænus was one of these, and is said to have gone to India. It is reported that among persons there who knew of Christ, he found the Gospel according to Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them, and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language, which they had preserved till that time. (Schaff, NPNF2-01. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine 1890, 445-446)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechetical Lectures, says the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew. (St. Cyril of Jerusalem 2013, Kindle Locations 4317-4318)

The great bible scholar St. Jerome provides some of the most compelling testimony to Matthew’s Gospel being originally written in Hebrew. In his De Viris Illustribus, or On Illustrious Men (A.D. 492), Jerome writes of extant copies of the Gospel of Matthew that still existed in the library at Caesarea and among the Nazarenes.

Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Cæsarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Berœa, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Saviour quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew. Wherefore these two forms exist “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” and “for he shall be called a Nazarene. (Schaff, NPNF2-03. Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, & Rufinus: Historical 1892, 626)

David Blivin and Roy Blizzard Jr., in their book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, write of the Hebraic background of the New Testament. They point out that although the New Testament documents are written in Greek, they are thoroughly Hebrew in their grammatical construction, which accounts for what many scholars call the “poor Greek” of the New Testament.

It should be emphasized that the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is, in its entirety, highly Hebraic. In spite of the fact that portions of the New Testament were communicated in Greek, the background is thoroughly Hebrew. The writers are Hebrew, the culture is Hebrew, the religion is Hebrew, the traditions are Hebrew, and the concepts are Hebrew. (Bivin and Blizzard Jr. 1994, Kindle Locations 82-84)

Regarding the Gospel of Matthew, Dr. David Scaer notes that as Matthew was written as a catechesis, Matthew would have used several scribes as amanuenses. Thus, there would have been multiple autographs. (Scaer 2004, 102) It is unclear when the Gospel of Matthew was translated into Greek, but it must have happened rather quickly, after which the Greek text became the standard text, used in the increasingly Gentile church in preference to the original Hebrew text.

So what does this matter, you may ask? It matters because the only texts we have of the Gospel of Matthew are in Greek, and are therefore translations of the original Hebrew. We have the witness of Papias, as recorded by Eusebius, not only to the original text of Matthew’s Gospel being composed in Hebrew, but that it was translated into Greek by multiple people, “as best they were able.” This would account for some of the differing textual traditions of the Gospel of Matthew, and for the extensive Hebraisms found therein.

A Hebraism is a Hebrew idiom that is a literal word for word translation into another language — in our case, Greek. From there, our English bibles tend towards a literal, word for word translation of the Greek text. An idiom is generally defined as “a speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements, as in keep tabs on.” (FARLEX n.d.) A literal, word for word Greek translation of a Hebrew idiom results in a text that is obscure, often violates the rules of Greek grammar, and is therefore amenable to misinterpretation. From David Bivin and Roy Blizzard Jr.’s book, we will provide but a single example of a Hebraism from the Gospel of Matthew, one that changes the typical interpretation of the text.

A mistranslation of the eighth beatitude may also have been the cause of erroneous theology. Matthew 5:10 reads: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” On the basis of this translation, one would quite naturally assume that there is some religious merit in being persecuted for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Early in the second century A.D. this idea developed and found its fruition in the martyrdom of millions during the years of the ten severe persecutions until the Edict of Toleration by Constantine in 311 A.D. The idea of gaining religious merit through suffering persecution or through martyrdom has continued in the theological consciousness of the church to the present day. Is this really what Jesus is referring to in Matthew 5:10? Does Jesus mean that religious merit can be obtained by suffering persecution? Are we to seek persecution? No! This eighth beatitude should be translated: “How blessed are those who pursue righteousness, for of these is the Kingdom of Heaven.” There are actually four mistranslations in this one verse. We should not translate “persecute,” but “pursue.” Secondly, “righteousness” is an unfortunate translation in English. “Salvation” or “redemption’ would be more accurate. (See our discussion on page 60.) Thirdly, “theirs” also leaves the wrong impression. We do not possess the Kingdom. The correct translation would be “of these,” or “of such as these” as in Luke 18:16, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them, for of such as these is the Kingdom of God.” Fourthly, the Kingdom of Heaven is not futuristic, as is so often understood. (See our discussion on pages 62-65.) In the eighth beatitude Jesus is not discussing persecution at all. He is describing people whose chief desire is for God to redeem the world. The Beatitudes are a description of the kind of people who make up the Kingdom of Heaven. This beatitude, like the others, characterizes the “Kingdom Man,” who wants above all else for God to rule in the life of every person. The eighth beatitude echoes the fourth beatitude which speaks of those who “hunger and thirst [i.e., ‘desire above all else’] for righteousness,” in other words, for God to save the lost. It also echoes Matthew 6:33 in which Jesus says that we are to “seek first [i.e., ‘desire above all else’] His righteousness [i.e., ‘salvation ].” (Bivin and Blizzard Jr. 1994, Kindle Locations 591-604)


Bibliography

Bivin, David, and Roy Blizzard Jr. Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights From a Hebrew Perspective. Revised Edition. Shippensburg: Destiny Image Publishers, 1994.

FARLEX. The Free Dictionary. n.d. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/idiom (accessed April 26, 2014).

Scaer, David P. Discourse in Matthew: Jesus Teaches the Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2004.

Schaff, Philip. ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1884.

—. NPNF2-01. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Translated by Arthur C. McGiffert and Ernest C. Richardson. Vol. 1. 14 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1890.

—. NPNF2-03. Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, & Rufinus: Historical. New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem. The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Kindle Edition. Translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford. 2013.


[1] There was a Roman trade route to India, with a sizeable Jewish population living there.